Interview with Mark Okrent
© Mark Okrent and Figure/Ground
Dr. Okrent was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. May 5th, 2014.
Dr. Okrent is Professor of Philosophy at Bates College. Taking a PhD at Yale, Dr. Okrent’s books include Heidegger’s Pragmatism: Understanding, Being, and the Critique of Metaphysics and, more recently, Rational Animals: The Teleological Roots of Intentionality. Professor Okrent’s website informs that he “tends to derive insights from two sources, the pragmatic tradition in American philosophy that he sees culminating, (after assimilating the techniques of classical analytic philosophy), in the work of Donald Davidson, and the German transcendental tradition, that he sees culminating in the early work of Martin Heidegger.”
How did you decide to become a university professor?
I actually decided to become a philosophy professor before I knew much about philosophy, and before I knew anything about the role of professor at all. I’m not sure I would recommend this decision procedure to others, but it seems to have worked out okay for me.
I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and I have a distinct memory (which I believe is more or less accurate) of reading Descartes’ Meditations on the subway one evening while I was in high school. (There is a separate implausible story about how I came to be reading Descartes, indirectly having to do with my implausible pursuit of romantic love at the age of 15, but I’ll leave that part out.) The seeming possibility that there might be a lack of correspondence between my experience of the world and the world itself struck me with the force of a disturbing revelation, a possibility that I remember representing as the deeply alienating possibility that the subway car that I was apparently riding in and all of the people in it might merely be part of a movie that was being projected onto some kind of internal mental screen. I remember thinking for a few minutes about this possibility and about how I might show to my own satisfaction that it really wasn’t a possible state of affairs after all. At that point I had a second epiphany: They pay people for thinking about this stuff! The next morning I announced to my incredibly nerdy friends at my incredibly nerdy high school that when I grew up I intended to teach philosophy. (As far as I can tell this really is a true story. I know that at the time I was just pretentious enough that it might be true.)
Now, of course, a resolution taken when one is 15 is rarely a resolution that is actually kept. And, as I knew nothing much about philosophy yet this resolution was hardly an informed decision, nor likely to be one that I kept. The resolution was enough, however, to motivate two further acts. First, I told my parents that I intended to major in philosophy. When my mother finished crying (literally) we made a deal. My parents would pay for the college of my choice if I promised to take mostly math and science courses during my freshman year. And second, my resolve was sufficiently strong that I insisted as part of this negotiation that I be allowed to take one philosophy course a semester during my freshman year. At the time, the introductory sequence in philosophy at Reed College in Oregon, where I went, was a year long history of philosophy survey. Perhaps surprisingly I found that I enjoyed actually doing philosophy academically even more than I enjoyed pretending to enjoy doing philosophy. In light of this fact, after my freshman year I organized my course work with an eye towards going to graduate school in philosophy.
Reed was a wonderful place to study philosophy in the 1960’s when I was a student there. (Given the number of excellent philosophers who began their training there, including the current President of the APA’s Eastern Division, Sally Haslanger, my guess is that it has continued to be a wonderful place to study philosophy.) The professors were fine and knowledgeable scholars and superb teachers, and, partially because philosophy had a strong reputation on campus, my peers were both extremely intelligent and completely committed to the philosophical enterprise. Several of us wanted to go on to do graduate work in philosophy, and several of us did so, including one other student who went with me to Yale. It never occurred to me during this period that I wouldn’t wind up teaching philosophy, though I believe that the thought did pass through my parents’ minds on a regular basis. Oddly enough, as an undergraduate my interests remained centered on the kinds of epistemological issues that had initially attracted me to philosophy in that subway car, and I tended to approach those issues historically by focusing on the early modern period. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school and started studying Kant and Hegel more systematically that I became interested in the issue that, in retrospect, has dominated most of my work over the years: the problem of intentionality, of how there can be states or events that so much as purport to be about a world external to those states or events.
By the way, there is a false, unstated assumption behind your question. I never did decide to become a university professor. I always aspired to be what I have been fortunate enough to be for many years, a professor at a highly selective small liberal arts college. I really enjoy teaching intelligent, motivated undergraduates, and being at Bates has allowed me to do that on a regular basis over the years. Also, I believe that teaching at a highly selective U.S. undergraduate college allows one a higher degree of freedom to pursue one’s own interests as they change than is afforded at a university that has a graduate program, although I might be wrong in that belief. At any rate, my decision was to try to become a college teacher. When I went on the market I believe I told my placement officer that my ideal job would be at a small liberal arts college in the northeast or the northwest. And I was fortunate enough to get my dream job, and even more fortunate to keep it.
Who were some of your mentors in grad school? What did you learn from them?
I will approach an answer to your question indirectly. Compared to present norms, or even the standards at the time, my graduate school experience was quite unusual. I entered graduate school at Yale in 1968. This fact significantly affected my philosophical development in two ways. First, it was the height of the Vietnam War, and, second, Yale was entering the period of turmoil that was to afflict their philosophy department for decades.
My graduation from college fell during the rather brief period after graduate school deferments from the U.S. draft had been abolished and before the draft was replaced with a lottery system. This meant that I was subject to being drafted immediately after my college graduation. I decided to apply for conscientious objector status and the bureaucratic process involved in that application dominated my first year at Yale. Ultimately I was awarded status as a CO, and I was in fact drafted in December 1969, in the last month before the lottery went in to effect. I subsequently had a full time job doing alternative service for the remainder of my time at Yale, a period of two and a half years. I had apprised Yale of my situation and they were remarkably accommodating and flexible. I arranged to finish all of my course work for the PhD in the year and a half I was there before I started my CO job, and to write my dissertation while performing my alternative service. As a consequence, however, I was rather distant from the department and the normal life of a graduate student, even though I managed to TA during this time. For a variety of personal reasons, I also sped through the program and received my degree in four years in 1972, a fact that further hindered my developing a close identification with the department.
When I entered Yale the department was still trying to adjust to the departure of Sellars, and several other professors, to Pittsburgh earlier in the decade. The department was quite strong in history of philosophy and still had residual strengths in American pragmatism and idealism, as well as some presence in phenomenology and late Wittgenstein. On the other hand, it was woefully weak in most 20th century analytic philosophy, and especially in logical empiricism and its post-positivist successors. For example, even though this was the 1960’s, I can’t remember that I heard the name ‘Quine’ mentioned frequently. This fact, that analytic philosophy as it had developed in the first two thirds of the twentieth century was seriously underrepresented in the curriculum and intellectual life of my graduate department, was (to use an understatement) not a good thing.
Both my education and my interests at the time conformed to the pattern of the department. The two strongest influences on me were unquestionably my dissertation advisor, George Schrader, and J. N. Findlay, although, perhaps because of my peripheral relation to the department, it would certainly be an error to describe Prof. Findlay as a mentor, and it would even be a stretch to describe Prof. Schrader in that way. (I took a course at Yale with Karsten Harries on the early Heidegger and the late Wittgenstein, which in retrospect undoubtedly had an important effect on my development. At the time I didn’t realize that it had particularly affected me, however. I didn’t really develop a professional interest in Heidegger until the mid to late 1970s.) I don’t think that at the time I knew why it was that I gravitated towards these two professors, and I doubt that I could have articulated very clearly what it was that they taught me. It was only much later that I realized that both Schrader and Findlay had significant roles in developing my fascination with what I came to think of as the three aspects of the problem of intentionality. What is it for a state or event to be about or directed towards something? What are the necessary conditions for the possibility of intentionality? What kind of entity (or agent) is capable of having intentional states? From Schrader, who was of course primarily a Kant scholar, I took the realization that the epistemological questions that had led me to philosophy rested on perhaps dubious answers to a prior question, first relatively clearly formulated by Kant, having to do with the conditions under which mental states can be about a world at all. On the other hand, Findlay influenced me to look to Husserl in particular, and the phenomenological movement in general, for possible insight into the issues surrounding intentionality. At the time that I was at Yale Findlay was completing his translation of Husserl’s Logical Investigations, and I was privileged to take his course on that work. Looking back I’m pretty certain that that course had a lasting impact on me. Finally, both of these professors reinforced my conviction that the best way of approaching a philosophical problem was to first look at the development of that problem in the historical tradition.
In your experience, has the role of the university professor – and student-professor relations – changed much since you were an undergraduate? What makes a good teacher today?
The context in which pedagogical engagement occurs has changed substantially in the 50 years since I entered undergraduate school, and because of that the norms involved in that engagement have also changed, in both the statistical and socially evaluative senses of ‘norms’. On the other hand, I think that (what ought to be) the goal of teaching philosophy has remained the same, and so what it is to be a good teacher hasn’t really changed as much as one might think.
There are two obvious differences between the social environment in which teaching occurred 50 years ago and the one that exists today. First, a far higher percentage of young people in North America go to college now than did then. Second, there has been remarkable technological change in the last 50 years, and that change affects a wide variety of pedagogically important factors, from the way in which research is conducted, to the mental dispositions of the students who enter the classroom, and the possible means for interacting with those students. The first development, the large numbers of students seeking higher education, has placed heavy demands on the institutions charged with providing that education. The large majority of undergraduates attend institutions in which class sizes tend to be quite large, and most professors tend to teach in that kind of institution. In addition, the need to provide teachers for large numbers has exaggerated two other tendencies, the rise in the number of adjunct professors and the rise in the use of TAs, a tendency which I suspect has kept graduate programs artificially large. In this type of environment there is clearly a premium on the development of pedagogical techniques that can effectively reach large numbers, and those who can effectively develop and use those techniques count as good teachers. Fortunately, in light of this demographic situation, the rise in the percentage of students going to college has coincided with rapid technological change, and many of the new pedagogical techniques that have been invented rely on that new technology. As I have already mentioned, many of these new technological techniques, including, for example, the use of power point in the classroom and the institution of online discussion groups, have come to be both widely practiced and considered within the professorial community to be essential to good teaching. These developments in teaching techniques have also been coordinated with a change in the expectations and abilities of the students, a change that I suspect has been at least partially caused by the secular change in technology. It seems to me that contemporary students both expect more stimulation and thrive on more frequent stimulation than their predecessors. It also seems to me that contemporary students are much better at accessing information in relatively small chunks and relatively short time frames than their ancestors were, but not quite as good at following extended arguments that are presented to them in article or chapter sized portions.
It strikes me in reading over the last paragraph that what I have to say on these matters sounds more than a bit like conventional, dumbed down, popular sociology. I don’t think that is an accident, as I have been mostly a rather distant observer of the trends I am attempting to describe. To a rather remarkable extent I personally have been shielded from the effects of these trends by the nature of the institutions I attended and the nature of the institution at which I teach. In the course of my entire academic career, from callow undergraduate to aged professor, I have very rarely participated in classes larger than 30 or 35, and many of the classes I have taken or taught were considerably smaller than that. When I was a student the accepted model of pedagogy was probably ‘the sage on the stage’, but the vast majority of my own courses were seminar sized and emphasized discussion and dialogue. Now I suppose the model is more like the hip professor who casually chats with her students online, but the vast majority of the courses I teach are seminar sized and emphasize discussion and dialogue. I consider myself, and my students, to be very fortunate in this respect, as I think that this kind of teaching environment is pretty close to ideal for the teaching of philosophy. In addition to imparting some knowledge of the development of the tradition of thinking about and defining philosophical problems, philosophy teachers are trying to help to develop a certain kind of skill in their students. This is the skill of knowing how to understand, articulate, and criticize arguments, or, if that sounds too contentious, the skill of knowing how to play the game of giving and asking for reasons. The best way to acquire a skill, indeed, I suspect the only way to acquire a skill, is to practice the activity involved in the skill, endure correction and instruction, and practice the activity again. One learns how to play the flute by attempting to play the flute, and one learns philosophy by attempting to philosophize. It seems to me that these attempts are most effective in developing the philosophical skill when the attempts are frequent and the feedback on the attempts is fast and comprehensive. And this happens most often when class size is small enough that an actual class discussion can occur in which each of the students has an opportunity to make points, ask questions, and respond to each others’ comments, and the teacher has an opportunity to assign many papers and the time to comment extensively on those papers.
Now, I realize that most teachers today don’t have the kinds of opportunities afforded by small classes to help to impart the philosophical skill. But, whatever one’s teaching situation, a good philosophy teacher is the one who uses whatever means are necessary to use the opportunities afforded by that situation to help her students to acquire the philosophical skill. Those necessary means vary, of course, as a function of the pedagogical context, but the aim remains the same.
What advice would you give to aspiring university professors and what are some of the basic texts that young graduates in philosophy should read, in your opinion?
I’m going to interpret the ‘aspiring university professor’ in the first part of your question to pick out the class of persons who are thinking of going to graduate school in philosophy. Under that interpretation, there is, of course, an obvious sense in which it would be highly presumptuous of me to offer any advise to aspiring university professors in philosophy or any other discipline. For the last 36 years I have had a securely tenured position at an institution with stabile finances and a large and steady stream of high quality applicants. Today, aspiring philosophers are facing a horrendous job market in a wider economic environment in which support for public universities is under considerable threat, and in which rampant capitalism has created a two-tier faculty employee structure that includes under-compensated and under-benefited adjuncts as well as tenure track faculty. Under these circumstances, any person who is considering a graduate career in philosophy must, I think, honestly answer two questions: Given my graduate school opportunities and my own assessment of my abilities, what is the probability that I will be able to obtain tenure track employment when I finish graduate school? Is the intrinsic satisfaction that I am likely to obtain from having the chance to study philosophy for the next six years a sufficient benefit for me to motivate embarking on a graduate program even in the face of the very real possibility that I will need to start on a different career outside of teaching when I am finished with this program? The only advice that I can offer is to suggest that the aspiring philosophy professor honestly answer these questions before starting graduate school.
The number of young students who in fact answer these questions honestly and still feel compelled to go to graduate school in order to study philosophy and to attempt to become professors of philosophy is quite remarkable, I think, and is evidence for the enduring appeal of the philosophical life. And, I must admit, I find this to be a wonderful thing. So, under the assumption that a student has decided to go to graduate school, what advice might I give and what texts do I think that she should read? I am a big believer in the importance of the philosophical tradition, and my advice reflects that belief. Philosophical questions arise and take on their particular forms in a historical context, and a big part of that context is always provided by the previous history of philosophizing. For reasons having to do with the particular history of the development of Anglophone philosophy in the 20th century, many graduate programs in the U.S. have minimal requirements in the history of philosophy prior to Frege. Regardless of that fact, it seems to me that any philosopher, aspiring or otherwise, benefits by having a thorough grounding in the canon. My specification of the canon is pretty standard, I think, with certain idiosyncrasies. There are many texts from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Mill that most everyone would place in the canon, and I think it is more than valuable to any philosopher to know those texts well. Some of those texts are of such intrinsic value and have had such a massive influence that every philosopher should have at one point or another studied them carefully. And, for me, those essential texts would certainly include The Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics and The Critique of Pure Reason though there are many others that arguably should be included on this list.
The makeup of the historical philosophical canon becomes more contentious after around 1800, of course. Depending on which graduate program one attends, it will be impossible for one to get a PhD without reading and studying Frege, Russell, Carnap, Quine, Kripke, etc., but it will be quite possible, even likely, that one will never have encountered Hegel, Nietzsche, Hussserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, etc. On the other hand, there are other departments in which one will know the second list well when one gets the PhD, but have little more than a nodding acquaintance with the philosophers on the first list. It seems to me that this situation is unfortunate, for everyone concerned. So my second bit of advice to the aspiring philosophy professor is to read and carefully study the ‘other’ canon, however that canon is defined in your department. As, unfortunately, the student is probably going to need to study the alternative canon largely on her own, it is also a good idea for her to consult a good, and relatively accessible, survey of the relevant material. Two excellent surveys that come immediately to my mind are the two volumes of Scott Soames’ Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century and Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World. After the aspiring philosopher has done this, I believe that she will start to see the variety of mutually informing relations between these two traditions, and be able to profitably go on and look at discussions of more specific relationships across the so-called divide, such as Michael Friedman’s A Parting of the Ways, which focuses on the relationship of Carnap and Heidegger.
In his interview with Figure/Ground, Simon Critchley said, in reference to a possible institutional crisis of the university in an age of academic capitalism, “I wouldn’t say the university is in crisis; it’s largely a question of “what are universities for?” No one’s really asking that question.” I’m curious what your answer would be to Critchley’s question: What is a university for, in your view?
There are several ways in which the question Critchley asks is a good one. Any question of the form “What are x’s for?” is interesting in virtue of the teleological character of its structure. This is especially true when x’s are a kind of institution, such as a university. And finally, universities in particular are an especially interesting species of institution.
Let’s start with the teleology. On the one hand, an x can be for y even if x does not do y, and even if it is incapable of doing y. An exceedingly dull knife can be for cutting bread even if it is incapable of cutting bread. And x can bring about y, and even carry out the causal function of bringing y about in situation z, without it being the case that x is for y. A hammer can perform the causal role of being a paperweight, without that hammer being for holding down papers on a windy day. So there is a really interesting open question regarding how the teleological function of a kind of artifact, such as hammers, or a kind of biological organ, such as hearts, or a type of institution, such as universities, is specified. (As I use the term, the ‘teleological function of x’ is, roughly, what x’s are there to do, what an x should be able to do insofar as it is an x, or ‘what x is for’. It is crucial to this usage that an individual x can have the teleological function of doing y, that is, that it is for ying, and still be entirely incapable of doing y.) In fact, this is a question that really interests me, to the extent that the first half of my last book focused on the related question of what it is for an action or an event (or a type of action or event) to have a goal. Of course, Ruth Milliken has an exceptionally well worked out view of teleological functions based on selection history that, deservedly, dominates most contemporary discussions of these issues. I am among the minority who don’t basically accept her position, but I won’t waste your time by explaining my objections to Milliken’s position or by trotting out my developed understanding of teleology. In this context, however, I think it is at least worthwhile to suggest that there is good reason to think that there is a determinate answer to a question of the form ‘what are x’s for?’ only relative to some wider teleological system in which x’s function. (In my terminology a ‘teleological system’ is an articulated structure of interrelated items that function together in order to bring about a result, or for the sake of continuing a process. It is crucial to this usage that an instance of a type of teleological system can be incapable of achieving its telos.) For example, given that hearts are essentially biological organs that are to serve a teleological role in the life processes that constitute the life of an organism, and only insofar as what it is for an individual to be a heart involves that it is to serve such a role in that type of system, hearts are for pumping blood. But instances of things like artifacts, biological organs, and institutions often can perform multiple causal roles and have teleological roles in a number of different systems. This fact gives rise to a really interesting further question: Given that individuals and types of things often play teleological roles in multiple different teleological systems, is there some fact of the matter regarding the identity of the particular teleological system relative to which what the kind of thing ‘is for’ is fixed? I have views about that, but, as I said, I won’t bore you with them. (No one should think that what I have just said is meant to be an answer to the question regarding what it is for x’s to be for ying. It is hardly even the beginning of such an answer. Nevertheless, I think it is enough to get us on to what I take to be the real topic of your question, universities.)
Part of the interest of the question concerning what universities are for arises precisely out of the fact that in contemporary post-industrial capitalist societies universities actually do so many different things, some well and some not so well, and function in several different teleological systems. Correlated with this, different segments of society actually use universities to perform different functions and to achieve different goals. And for that reason, the answer to the question of what universities are for is actually, in our real world, contested, and this is a real world problem for those of us who work inside universities. So, for example, it is obvious that whatever else universities do, they often take unformed adolescents as input, and produce workers who have the skills and attitudes necessary to occupy various necessary occupational roles within our economic systems. And many in our society, including some economists, some wealthy people, many students, probably most parents, and many state legislators who fund public universities in the U.S., take this job to be the function of the university. If this is what universities are for, as these people believe, then universities, and the professors who work within them, are to be evaluated primarily in terms of how well they develop the skills of the students who attend them that are economically useful in our current society. It is from this evaluative standpoint that universities should increase training in the STEM disciplines at the expense of training in the humanities and social sciences, and this is also the perspective from which professors should be doing more teaching directly geared to developing specific occupational skills than they currently do. And, while perhaps it sometimes seems as if it would be nice if we professors could simply dismiss this evaluative standpoint, the facts that in our (or indeed, any) historical context, universities are institutions that need to be funded by people outside the university who see them as valuable for some reasons of their own, and that some institution needs to train young people to occupy socially useful or necessary job classifications, suggest that it would be a mistake to just dismiss this perspective as illegitimate.
On the other hand, universities also have important roles in other systems within our society. If we just keep the focus on the education of the students for the moment, universities are also charged with producing ‘informed citizens’ of a liberal democracy, that is, individuals who are capable of rationally considering how the society should best be organized and are capable of taking responsibility for their judgments by defending those judgments by providing reasons and responding to objections. This educational role implies an evaluative standpoint quite different from the one I mentioned above. Given this understanding of what universities are for, we should probably be putting more effort and resources into social science and humanities training than we do, and we should probably have serious doubts about using universities for strictly vocational training. This educational role is related to but distinct from yet another educational role of contemporary universities. Universities are the primary repositories of the accumulated ‘wisdom’ of our historical traditions, where that wisdom involves what our ancestors and we have learned about how to live a good human life. As such, universities perform the job, usually tacitly, of teaching young people the skills that help one to get on with the business of existing and flourishing as an adult human being. Needless to say, this understanding of the educational role of universities yields a very different set of desiderata for how students ought to be educated than either of the others that I have mentioned.
There are also other educational jobs that universities do around here. And each of these ‘educational jobs’, each of these teleological roles in different teleological systems, carries with it a different evaluative stance, coordinated with these different answers to the question of what universities are for. But, of course, over and above these educational roles, in our society one of the primary jobs of the universities is not directly related to the education of students at all. Universities provide the primary mechanism not only for the transmission of knowledge and skills, but also for the development of new knowledge and skills, new ways of answering the questions that arise in the course of living our lives, and new ways of getting what we need and want. And this role carries with it an evaluative perspective that might be quite different from any of the above. If this is what universities are for, then our efforts and resources ought to be primarily focused on faculty research and doing whatever will maximize the universities’ ability to carry out this developmental task.
So I’ve successfully managed to ramble on for quite some time without offering an answer to the question ‘What are universities for?’ I don’t think that this is an accident or that it is even a bad thing. Historically developing institutions like the universities often come to assimilate a variety of distinct but related functions, and this fact makes it impossible to give a univocal answer to questions of the form ‘What is institution x for’? If the universities are in crisis, then, it is not because no one has an answer to the question of what universities are for. Rather, since universities function in so many different roles and have so many different constituencies, there are a great number of (mostly) tacit answers to this question floating around in our culture. And, since most, if not all, of the jobs that the universities are charged with doing in our society really do need to be done by some institution or other, the easy kind of answer to the question, the answer that universities are for A, but not B or C, or…, and thus ought to be organized for doing A rather than B, or C, or…, is, I think, precluded. Maybe it’s irrational to have one kind of institution do this many different things, so perhaps it makes sense to develop a new set of alternative institutions that specialize in performing distinct functions, reserving the word ‘university’ for one of these successors. (To some extent these various functions have recently in fact been parceled out to different kinds of institutions, although for prestige reasons these different kinds of institutions all seem to be called ‘universities’ or ‘colleges’.) But, although I am not certain about this, I don’t think it does make sense to try to separate the functions cleanly in this way. I have a sneaking suspicion that our universities have the odd multi-role structures that they have developed precisely because the job of developing wisdom, skills, and knowledge is best carried out in conjunction with the apparently separate job of transmitting that wisdom, those skills, and that knowledge to the young. And for that reason I think that it is probably best to just muddle on without a single answer to the question of what universities are for, even if the lack of such an answer inevitably leads to conflict and frustration.
Marshall McLuhan is sometimes regarded as a superficial thinker who merely scrapped the surface of phenomena with his aimless probes and aphorisms. However, in the 1960s, his analogical/metaphorical type of thinking disclosed a number of insights that were extremely thought provoking and ahead of his time. I would like your reactions on questions stemming from two particular statements of his…
1) In 1964, he declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of academic capitalism and digital interactive media?
2) Toward the end of his life, McLuhan declared that, “Phenomenology [is] that which I have been presenting for many years in non-technical terms.” Is phenomenology still relevant in this age of information and digital interactive media?
I take it that these two questions have to do with the ways in which ‘digital interactive media’ and ‘academic capitalism’ have affected traditional sources of authority and legitimacy. The first question concerns the effect of these forces on the academic disciplines and the university, while the second tacitly raises issues regarding the relation of these forces with the kind of authority claimed by phenomenology. I’ll try to respond to these questions sequentially, starting with the first.
Academic capitalism takes several different forms in North America. It seems to me that the fundamental phenomenon that has conditioned most of these developments (the rise of for profit universities, education as a consumer product, education as vocational training, the rise in the use of adjuncts, and the ways in which an attempt has been made to integrate digital interactive media into the educational process) is the rise in the percentage of the population that has sought ‘higher education’ in the course of the last 75 years. Initially, in the years after World War II, this phenomenon had both the aim and the effect of introducing non-elite groups to the form of education, and the employment opportunities, that had previously been used to perpetuate cross-generational membership in the upper classes. (The ‘non-elite groups’ in question at first included working class and immigrant white males, but was later expanded to include women and non-white populations.) This development in fact succeeded in integrating some elements of these populations into economic and social positions that would previously have been unavailable to them. My own education, for example, was a product of the early stages of this movement; in earlier periods a person of my background would have been unlikely to have attended the institutions that I went to or been employed where I have been employed. As the numbers admitted to higher education increased, however, it became clear that the economic system could not absorb the number of graduates who had been prepared for these formerly restricted positions. The collapse of the job market for professional philosophers in the early 1970’s, (a collapse from which it has never recovered), is just one relatively trivial example of this phenomenon. It is still the case that in and of itself a college degree confers important economic advantages, but these advantages tend to be maximized by the addition of one or more augmenting factors, only one of which has much to do with an education in one or another of the traditional humanities. So, for example, if one has a substantial background in the STEM disciplines, or an education that directly prepares one for some well defined profession, such as nursing or accountancy, or an educational background that suits one for a career in finance, the economic value of the undergraduate degree is greatly enhanced. (The most significant exception to this generalization concerning the economic value of a humanistic education is, I think, attendance at an ‘elite’ college or university; that is, an institution that both still supplies a traditional humanistic education and has the cultural cache to be recognized as a route to the socio-economic upper classes. In the U.S. it pays economically to go to an Ivy League or similar institution, as long as that similarity is generally recognized.)
Under these circumstances it seems to me that it is close to inevitable that the sovereignty of the traditional disciplines over their own curricula and administration will be eroded, especially in the humanities. As I tried to emphasize in my response to one of the earlier questions, ‘university’ is not currently a univocal kind in the U.S. Some contemporary universities supply a traditional education, either to a relatively small number of students or to a much larger number. Others give large numbers of students an essentially vocational education. Some universities have a primary focus on research; others do not. Each of these types of universities supplies a different environment to which the representatives of traditional disciplines within departments need to adapt. And in many of these environments the pressure generated by the necessity to teach large numbers and the fact that there are a limited number of positions available in the economy for those with a traditional humanistic education pushes against departmental sovereignty and towards a ‘top down’ model of administration in which the primary goal is to efficiently process many students on the way to gainful employment.
Given all of these facts, however, it doesn’t follow that all of the kinds of responses that administrators have attempted to impose on faculty and students can be justified in light of any of the purposes that any of these types of universities serve. In particular, it seems to me that two recent developments can’t be justified on any pedagogical grounds, and for that reason ought to be resisted by both faculty and students. First, while the economic pressure to do more ‘educating’ with fewer resources might make the expansion of the use of adjuncts understandable, it seems to me that it is just a bad idea. The problem isn’t only that the adjuncts themselves are exploited economically and their use puts downward pressure on all faculty salaries, although those are bad enough. Beyond these consequences, the expanded use of adjuncts is pedagogically deeply problematic, regardless of the purposes of the education that is being offered. Students learn best when they are taught by faculty that are committed to their education and have the time to interact with them outside of the classroom setting. Whether one is learning to play the flute, or to philosophize, or to be a carpenter, it dramatically helps the student if she can enter into the role of apprentice with some skilled mentor. This is not always possible, of course, but the closer that one can come to that ideal the better. And, it seems to me that no matter how skilled and caring the individual adjuncts are, the serious time and resource constraints on the role of adjunct make it pretty much impossible for them to establish anything like this type of relationship with students. Secondly, for much the same reason, MOOCs are another pedagogically bad idea that should be resisted, except in this case the model is even more pedagogically bankrupt. MOOC’s are tempting because they not only seem to be an effective response to the economic forces that I discussed above, but also because they seem to be an effective response to the technological revolution you mention in your question. In fact, however, it seems to me that for the reasons I just mentioned it is simply impossible to effectively teach anyone anything using that method, precisely because it inevitably keeps the student-teacher interaction at a minimum.
The rise of interactive digital media in the last 20 years or so is a pervasive fact of life, a fact to which all institutions, including universities, must adapt. And they will adapt, of course, although I don’t know how that will happen. Here are some of the environmental factors that I think are most important and will require the most serious changes. Minds shaped by digital interaction are different from minds shaped by print media in many subtle ways, and anyone who teaches and learns, that is, all of us, must respond to those differences. The fact of the ubiquitous presence of ‘information’ on the internet and in social media inevitably calls traditional sources of informational authority into question, and the representatives of that traditional authority need to respond to this challenge. At the same time, research itself is already carried out in quite different ways than it was 50 years ago, and the manner of that scholarly involvement will continue to change in ways that are, to me, entirely unpredictable. Similarly, interactive digital media seem to have offered pedagogical means to reach large numbers in ways that facilitate the kind of vocational processing that I mentioned in the last paragraph, even though as I also mentioned in the last paragraph this appearance is, I think, an illusion. I, along with many people, thus sometimes feel as if I am a scholar in the 15th century wondering how the advent of the printing press would affect scholarship and pedagogy. So, to sum this up, as with any rapid important change in the environment in which an institution such as the universities live, the rise of digital media presents that institution with the necessity that it adapt to that change. Is this a ‘crisis’? I suppose the answer to that question depends on how one is situated. There will be change, and winners and losers. I really don’t know how it will all shake out. I am convinced, however, that there will be universities after the change, and that the great majority of what we prize about the current institution will survive in a somewhat modified form after the change, because what we in fact prize deserves to be prized in any society, and I’m still enough of a Hegelian to think that in the very long run the actual and the rational tend to coincide.
I must admit that I find the question regarding phenomenology a little puzzling. As I understand it, phenomenology was meant by its founders to be a method for disclosing what it is for a state or act to be intentional; to discover what it is for an act to be about or directed towards some object, where that object is given as this or that. Now, there were certainly intellectual conditions that were necessary for the development of this method around 1900, and there are certainly socio-economic conditions that are necessary for people to actually apply that method. But whether or not phenomenology is ‘relevant’ has to do with whether or not it is relevant to the job it was meant to perform, that is, whether or not it is a good method for answering the question concerning intentionality. If it is a good method for approaching the essence of intentional phenomena, it is relevant in any historical period, whether or not people in that period think it is, or whether or not their material conditions allow them to practice that method; if it is not a good method for doing that it is not relevant in any historical period, whether or not people in that period think it is or whether or not their material conditions allow them to practice that method.
The next question concerns the pre-reflective state of playfully absorptive engagement with the world driven by operative intentionality, which is a trademark of existential phenomenology. As you know, a number of terms have been developed in the English language to characterize this existential determinant of Dasein, the most famous of which is the notion of “mindless/skillful everyday coping” introduced by Stewart and Dreyfus respectively. Now, some observers have found this jargon problematic insofar as “one copes with a problem,” or when something breaks down; we then stand back to question the object of concern, and through a reflective stance we may find ourselves contemplating it from a detached, logical perspective, as a substance with accidental properties or a “present-at-hand” entity. Similarly, the word “mindless” sounds rather pejorative: it suggests that when we are fully absorbed and fully immersed in whatever it is we are doing, the activity in question is no longer a “labour of love,” but a monotonous and repetitive task carried out by alienated individuals who do not proceed from their unique existential center as once-occurrent beings, but as one does – with the sort of levelling-down, careless anonymity that removes them from the picture. To challenge this notion, the philosopher Alphonso Lingis, drawing from Merleau-Ponty, suggests that there is intelligence in sensibility (i.e., the body thinks, or we think with our entire bodies). Additionally, Dermot Moran maintained in an interview with Figure/Ground that the human person is neither a Robocop that superimposes mathematical coordinates upon the world to find its way around, nor a brainless Frankenstein that uncritically dissolves in the midst of things. What do you make of all this?
I would like to preface the following with a remark about my basic approach to intentionality. My single most important commitment in this area is that the intentionality of action is fundamental, and the intentionality of cognitive states, including conscious states, is to be understood in relation to this fundamental intentionality of action. Action, as action, always is directed towards some telos. That is, acts are always directed towards something, they are always either in order to bring about some end or for the sake of continuing some process. It is a corollary to this basic commitment that actions don’t in general ‘acquire’ their goals by being caused by mental states that pass on their intentional content to the acts that they cause. (That is, what it is for an act to have a goal cannot be cashed out in terms of the content of the desires that might or might not partially cause the act.) It also follows from this basic commitment that we will never understand what it is for a state or event to be intentional until we can answer two questions: ‘What is it to be an agent who can act? ‘What is it for an agent to act?’ There is an interesting relationship between these two questions, taken together, and Heidegger’s question regarding the meaning of the being of Dasein.
Of course a human person is neither a Robocop that superimposes mathematical coordinates upon a world to find its way around, nor a brainless Frankenstein that uncritically dissolves in the midst of things. What it is to be a human person is to be an intelligent animal that copes with its environment by perceptually recognizing distinctions among objects and events that are significant for achieving her goals, is motivated to act appropriately in light of those distinctions so that she achieves those goals, can learn to recognize and respond appropriately in light of her goals to instrumentally important distinctions in her environment that she has not been able to recognize previously, is capable of inferring new successful ways of acting and new justified beliefs from previous beliefs and ways of acting, and is, in addition, able to respond to norms that are instituted by the social normative attitudes of people in her community.
It has sometimes seemed to me that, for all of his excellent work in this area, Burt Dreyfus has missed a fundamental lesson of The Phenomenology of Perception, at least as I read that book. Or, perhaps it is better to say that Dreyfus doesn’t always characterize the implications of the insights that he correctly gleans from Merleau-Ponty in the most perspicuous way. Merleau-Ponty sets up the dialectic of that work as a criticism of the notion that early modern empiricism and early modern rationalism give us a complete range of alternatives concerning what it is for a creature to be an agent who has intentional cognitive engagement with the world and thereby counts as having a ‘mind’. Against the empiricists he argues that perception itself is essentially intentional and need not be built up from meaningless sensations. This is because, he argues, an agent’s perception discloses distinctions in the environment that are relevant to the organic interests of the agent. Against the rationalists, Merleau-Ponty argues that, as is demonstrated by the intentional character of perception, for an agent to intend something under an aspect, as x, doesn’t require that that agent is in any way capable of representing, intending, or accessing what it is to be an x. Merleau-Ponty also rejects the kind of compromise position developed by Kant, which treats perceptual intuitions as intentional, as object intending, only insofar as they in some way involve self-consciousness, in that the agent is able to attach the ‘I think’ to them, and thus bringing them under concepts. Rather, The Phenomenology of Perception holds that an agent displays intentionality and intelligence whenever in the course of acting she perceives the world in terms of its significance for that activity and is motivated to respond appropriately to those perceived significant differences in light of her interests. Now, to call such coping activity in the world, (guided as it is by perceptual interaction with the environment), ‘mindless’ is, it seems to me, to concede the rationalist way more than he is entitled to. For an agent to have a mind is precisely for that agent to interact with its environment in an intelligent way, given its organic interests; to have a mind is to be an agent that can cope with the world.
It thus seems to me that to call engaged sensory-motor coping activity in the world ‘mindless’ is a mischaracterization. But Dreyfus has at least two other points to make in this area. The first has to do with his deep suspicions concerning descriptions and explanations of engaged sensory-motor coping activity in terms of beliefs and desires. The second concerns the possibility of specifying a set of rules that express what is involved in engaged coping activity. I will discuss each of these points in turn.
As I read him, Dreyfus’ suspicions regarding the appropriateness of appealing to beliefs in the description and explanation of engaged coping rely on one version or other of the following argument. It is a necessary condition on an agent having a belief that that agent is, or at least can become, conscious of having that belief. But, since in engaged coping activity we are not conscious of any such belief motivating our action, but rather seem to be motivated by perception itself, he concludes that beliefs play no role in engaged coping behavior. The problem with this argument is the first premise. A tradition that stretches from Descartes to Davidson through Kant asserts that only agents who are capable of having beliefs about beliefs, or are able to attribute beliefs to themselves, can have beliefs at all. Nevertheless, I think this claim is false. As I see it, whether or not a belief is involved in the etiology of an act has more to do with the specific goal directed character of the act and the character of the agent of the act than it does with what it is like for the agent to engage in that act or the degree of self-consciousness that the agent is capable of regarding her motivations. The sensory-motor arcs that are activated in engaged coping are, in many species, hard wired into all individuals in that species by their evolutionary history. (This is of course true of many of our human perceptual/action hook ups as well.) A wasp, for example, will invariably be motivated by a specific perceptual discrimination to act in certain ways that are in general conducive to achieving particular organically prescribed ends, and, since the wasp is incapable of learning how to make new perceptual discriminations that motivate new forms of activity, even when she has good reason to develop these new sensory-motor skills in order to achieve her ends, it seems weird to suggest that wasps have beliefs and desires that motivate their action or that she responds to reasons. But in humans, and a variety of other mammalian and avian species, individuals are capable of learning how to make new perceptual discriminations and able to come to be motivated in idiosyncratic ways in response to those perceptual discriminations. So, for example, a human can learn to play chess, and when she does so she can learn to see how she should move in order to strengthen her position, and come to move as she does because of that perception. Nevertheless, because this particular developed perception/action connection forms a part of a coherent sequence of rationally connected perception/action connections that are for the sake of achieving a relatively well defined distant goal, (and, in virtue of being capable of learning, the agent is capable of revising these connections in light of her experience), it seems distinctly odd to me to say that the agent lacks beliefs about chess strategy, or that those beliefs don’t condition her actions, including the acts that are motivated by her perception of the pattern of pieces on the board at a time. Based on similar considerations, it even seems to me that it is perfectly all right to attribute these Dreyfussian bête noire, beliefs and desires, to non-human agents that only intelligently cope with their world in this sensory-motor way, as long as such agents in general do what they have reason to do given the actual circumstances and their organic interests, they are capable of learning better ways to achieve their ends, and what they do is in general instrumentally rationally coherent in achieving their ends. I see nothing particularly wrong, for example, in saying that when my dog drops a chewy toy at my feet and nudges me with his nose, as he has learned to do when he wants me to play fetch with him, he acts intelligently, and acts as he does because he wants to play fetch and believes that acting in this way will get me to play fetch with him. And I am willing to say this even though I don’t for a moment think that when he does this he is conscious of acting on this belief-desire pair, or he is even capable of making this belief-desire pair conscious for himself, or that he is capable of acting as he does because he recognizes or is capable of recognizing this belief-desire pair in himself, or capable of explicitly inferring this activity from that pair by performing a conscious practical syllogism.
The crucial point to grasp here is that having a belief is one thing; being conscious of having a belief or intending oneself as having a belief, is another thing entirely. Drawing an inference is one thing; being conscious of or intending oneself as accepting the premises or conclusions of an inference or as drawing the inference is quite another. This is because what it is to be an agent that has beliefs or draws inferences has to do with the way in which the agent copes with its world, not with whether or not the agent is aware of the fact that it copes with the world in that way. Dreyfus, on the other hand, seems to think that it follows from the fact that when we humans are coping with our environment in an everyday manner we are not ordinarily conscious of having beliefs or drawing inferences, that in those circumstances we don’t have beliefs that are relevant to our actions or draw inferences in those situations. It seems to me, however, that the correct conclusions to draw here are rather that perception is intentional in that it is inherently tied to action, and that doing things for reasons and acting on one’s beliefs has to do with the style or manner in which an agent makes use of her perceptions to achieve her goals, rather than having to do with whether or not the agent is conscious of appealing to beliefs or rules when she acts.
So this leaves us with the Dreyfussian point about whether or not it is possible to capture or express in a set of rules what it is for an agent to be coping in an engaged fashion with its world. What I want to say about that has to do with what I perceive as an ambiguity regarding ‘capturing’ or ‘expressing’ in a set of rules ‘what it is for an agent to be coping in an engaged fashion with its world’. Questions concerning ‘what it is to be’ x properly have to do with the ‘being’ of x, in the sense of the essence of x. Now, as I’ve already suggested above, I think that what it is for an agent to be coping in an engaged fashion with its world essentially involves an animal agent acting (in one style or manner) for the sake of continuing as an organic individual. For some determination to ‘express’ or ‘capture’ what it is for an agent to be coping in an engaged fashion with its world, then, requires that that determination make explicit the organic teleology that is inherent in engaged coping. But this organic teleology can never be explicit in any algorithmic set of rules. Thus no such set of algorithmic rules, indeed, no specification of causal functions, can ever capture the teleology essential to engaged coping (or any other intentional phenomena). So far I agree with Dreyfus. However, there is a further consequence that Dreyfus draws from this conclusion that I think doesn’t follow. For all that has been said up to here, it is still possible that there is some algorithmic set of rules such that if they were instantiated would result in behavior that is extensionally indistinguishable from the coping behavior of engaged human agents. And in that sense such a set of rules could ‘capture’ what is involved in human engaged coping, even though what it is to be an agent skillfully coping with the world is not to be a causal functional system governed by any finite set of rules. Whether or not this is really possible seems to me to be an empirical issue about which philosophy has little or nothing to say. Philosophy might tell one what it is for an agent to perform an intentional trick; the causal mechanism whereby that trick is performed is a different matter entirely. By the way, most of what I have to say about this last issue is in a paper I published in 1996: “Why the Mind Isn’t a Program (But Some Digital Computer Might Have a Mind)”
Does all of this criticism of Dreyfus imply that Dreyfus’ Sellarsian opponents, such as McDowell, are right, then? I don’t think so. One of the ways in which Rebecca Kukla and Mark Lance, for example, characterize the fundamental lesson of Sellars’ Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind is as follows: “experience must present the world to us as normatively laden, in the sense that the contents of experience must license inferences, rule out and justify various beliefs, rationalize actions and so forth”. It seems to me that this assertion, properly interpreted, is true, and again, as properly interpreted, is entirely consistent with the lessons that Dreyfus ought to have gleaned from Merleau-Ponty. The trick behind my asserting this is, of course, the bit about ‘properly interpreted’. This is because my interpretation of this Sellarsian dictum is different from the way in which Dreyfus understands it, and is probably different from both Kukla and Lance’s understanding of their own words and Sellars own understanding of the lessons of his rejection of the ‘myth of the given’. The key claims, from my perspective, are that perceptual experience is ‘normatively laden’ and that perceptual experiences ‘rationalize actions’. What Merleau-Ponty, (and in a somewhat different vein, the early Heidegger), ought to have taught us is that what an agent primarily perceives is how to act in a situation in order to achieve her goal. When, in the course of taking a break from typing this sentence, I see my teacup, what I primarily perceive is (defeasibly) how I should reach out my hand in order to pick it up so that I can take a sip of tea. Thus the perception rationalizes my action in the sense that seeing the cup gives me a reason to move in a definite way, the way that in light of my perception I see to be conducive to my grasping the cup. And the perception is thus ‘normatively laden’ in the sense that the perception itself is the perception of how I should act to achieve my goal. So I completely agree with the letter of Kukla and Lance’s claim. But at the same time, Kukla, Lance, and other Sellarsians such as McDowell seem to believe that it is a necessary condition on an agent being responsive to reasons, or to have beliefs, or to perform normatively justified inferences because they are normatively justified, that the agent must be responsive to the types of socially sanctioned norms that make language use possible, the norms that thereby make it possible for the agent to become self-conscious regarding the norms to which she is responding. I suspect that they hold all of these things because they are committed to the view that all genuine normativity is grounded in the normative attitudes of social agents: that all norms are (to quote Brandom) “instituted by the practical attitudes of those who acknowledge them in their practice”. This, it seems to me, is a core mistake, so I guess I disagree with an important aspect of the spirit of Kukla and Lance’s Sellarsian lesson. Ultimately, norms are standards that specify how an agent should act (as I see it, epistemic norms governing belief are derivative from norms governing action), such instrumental norms are grounded in what it is to be an agent with organic interests, and many non-linguistic agents who are incapable of responsiveness to socially instituted norms are perceptually attuned to such reasons for acting. In an odd way, then, my only objection to Sellarsians such as Kukla and Lance is the same objection that I have to Dreyfus; they all have too highfaluting a notion of reasons, beliefs, and inferences. The Sellarsians think that there is no genuine intentionality, and thus no beliefs, without agents who have the possibility of attributing beliefs to themselves; Dreyfus thinks that there is some important, formal, in principle difference between the intentionality of agents when they are involved with engaged coping and agents when they act as they do because of their beliefs, or in light of their reflections on a situation. I think that they are both wrong. In fact, all norms and all responsiveness to norms, and with those, all intentionality (including the intentionality of the potentially self-conscious beliefs and actions that result from reflective disengagement), are grounded in and elaborations of the skillful, sensory-motor way in which we and other organic agents are attuned to and cope with their worlds.
To build on the previous question, I wonder what you make of the critique that a pragmatist reading of Heidegger – with its emphasis on the supremacy of praxis over theory – is misguided on account that the inversion of a metaphysical proposition remains a metaphysical proposition: i.e., that even if an immersed manipulation (as opposed to a detached contemplation) of objects were the premier hiatus of meaning, one would still remain caught in a “philosophy of access” that treats the human being as having some sort of special dignity over and above other entities in the world. By contrast, contemporary thinkers stemming from a Latourian perspective (e.g., Speculative Realists, Object-Oriented Ontologists) propose a “flat ontology” whereby all objects or “actants” should be taken on an equal footing in terms of their powers to mediate reality…
I’ll approach this question in two parts. First I’ll respond to the suggestion that pragmatism is, necessarily, a ‘philosophy of access’. Then I’ll make some comments about how I understand metaphysics.
It is of course true that there is a tradition stemming from Kant that thinks that the conditions for human cognition are conditions on what it is to be an object that can be cognized at all. To paraphrase the Highest Principle of Synthetic Judgment from the Transcendental Analytic: The necessary conditions on experience are at the same time the necessary conditions on the object of experience. Now, one way to read this principle, the way that is completely dominant in the Kantian tradition, is dependent on the assumption that only the kind of self-referential cognition that humans display is capable of intending independent entities. For that reason, I think, thinkers as different from each other as the early Heidegger, Sellars, and Davidson all hold that humans are sui generis in being capable of intending entities, and some hold that non-linguistic agents are incapable of intending entities. And there are certainly some forms of pragmatism that share this assumption. But there are also many kinds of pragmatism that are deeply suspicious of this assumption. If it is action in an environment that is geared towards achieving goals that is the primary form of intentionality and of the revelation of the character of the world, and there are non-human, non-linguistic, agents who act in an environment in order to achieve goals of their own, (as it seems to me is clearly the case), then the human kind of access to the world is just one of many. Those pragmatists who were (from my standpoint, overly) influenced by Kant, such as Davidson, Sellars, and the early Heidegger, seem to me to have missed this consequence. But there are many other pragmatists who have not, such as Dewey and Merleau-Ponty. So, as defined here, pragmatism is not as such a ‘philosophy of access’ although some pragmatists have committed this sin. (For a typology of pragmatists along these lines, have a look at my recent “Heidegger’s Pragmatism Redux” in The Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism.)
Now, one might think that any view, such as pragmatism, that emphasizes particular conditions of access to the world is necessarily going to be ‘subjectivistic’ even if it isn’t humanly chauvinistic. This is a different mistake. The characteristics of the world that an agent reveals in and through her actions are, inevitably, both relational and instrumental relative to the interests of the agent. For example, in the success and failure of their daily activities squirrels reveal different items as ‘food’ and ‘poison’. (Obviously, the descriptions on offer here are much too definite; the intensional meanings involved in such descriptions of things that arise out of patterns of activity are inherently and rather massively underdetermined and for that reason, vague. I discuss this issue in Rational Animals, but let’s forget about that problem for a moment.) Now one might think that properties like ‘poison for squirrels’ or ‘food for squirrels’ are not ‘real’ properties of anything. After all, such properties are narcissistically focused on squirrels; they are relational properties that include at least three places, the thing in question, the biological constitution of squirrels, and the organic interests of squirrels. But so what? Relations are real properties even if they aren’t intrinsic. And instrumental relational properties are as real as any other. The activities of agents reveal something about the real character of the world, even if that revelation is severely partial and perspectival. So pragmatism can incorporate a kind of realism.
But, one might think, theoretical cognition gives a different type of access than this, one that is truer to the real, true, nature of the thing than any mere pragmatic access from a perspective. Now, it seems to me from my pragmatic standpoint, this is really an unsupported dogma. From the perspective of a pragmatist, theoretical cognition is a very successful adaptation of a species that has succeeded in becoming capable of speech, an adaptation that is extraordinarily useful in helping get individuals belonging to that species what they need.
Now, some general remarks about how I understand metaphysics. I recognize that in part in virtue of a prevailing form of verificationism among pragmatists they are not in general friendly towards metaphysics. I’m a bit odd in that respect, as it seems to me that pragmatism and metaphysics might be compatible. Aristotle said that the question of being is the basic question that will always be asked. This seems right to me. Aristotle goes on to identify that question with the question of what it is to be an individual substance. Since substances, as understood by both Aristotle and the tradition (though Aristotle’s understanding of ‘substance’ is I think different from the understanding dominant in the tradition) are, in fact, merely one type of individual, I think his identification of the question of being with the question of substance was overly hasty. Nevertheless, the question of what it is to be an individual, and the coordinated question concerning why on an occasion there is an individual, of whatever kind, rather than a mere heap of parts, are, it seems to me, fundamental problems. (Obviously, one approach to the second problem is to be an atomist and to deny that any genuine individual has parts. This approach remains metaphysical, however, even in rejecting the Aristotelian form of the question, because it gives an answer to the question of what it is to be an individual.) And it also seems to me that it is possible that there might be legitimate pragmatic approaches to these questions. I think that I’ll use my answer to your next question to try to show how this might be possible.
Let’s now tackle, if you will, the questions you yourself formulated earlier – i.e., ‘What is it to be an agent who can act and what is it for an agent to act, in your view?
The notion of an action, of an agent doing something, is, it seems to me, absolutely central to human (and much non-human animal) cognition. There is a fair amount of empirical evidence that many species of non-human animals and infants as young as three months attribute agency to different types of objects. But, although agency is as ubiquitous as prose, from one angle I’ve always found the notion deeply puzzling. After all, regarding its etiology, every event belongs to the same type; every event is an effect of some other event that is its cause. It is that there is some individual event of some specific type that explains why the effect occurs when it does. But explanations of events that are acts, as acts, appeal to a third factor which is of a different ontological class than an event, the individual agent. And for that appeal to be an action explanation it must involve a certain special kind of relation between the event and the agent; it is not enough that the event be a change in the enduring entity that is the agent. If an animal has an epileptic seizure the event that is the proximate cause of the twitching behavior occurs in the animal, but that twitching is no act of the animal, as is, for example, the behavior that constitutes the animal’s hunting. So what kind of entity is an agent, and what relation must an event have to an agent in order for it to be an act? This, it strikes me, is a paradigmatically metaphysical question.
How can one go about answering this question? As I understand it, the fundamental commitment of pragmatism is that the primary form of access to entities, the basic type of intentionality, is pragmatic activity that is organized teleologically in order to achieve a goal. Clearly, an agent can engage in such activity without knowing what that agency consists in or what it is to be an agent, and perhaps it is possible for an entity to engage in that type of activity and be an agent without that activity revealing anything as an agent. But, for the pragmatist, it is only agents who act who can reveal any entity as an agent that acts, and the only approach to the question of the being of agents who act is by way of an examination of how acts and agents are revealed in the acts of some agent. This procedure might seem viciously circular, as according to this method an investigator would need to be able to recognize agency and agents before knowing what it is to be an agent. It isn’t though, for roughly the same reasons that the hermeneutic circle isn’t vicious.
So what is it to be an agent, and what is it for an agent to act? I’m afraid I only have a really short answer to that question or a really long answer, and since I think I’ve gone on quite long enough I’ll give you the short one. An agent is a kind of organism that behaves as it does because it is responding to the norm that this is the right way for it to behave in order to achieve its ends; when an agent behaves as it does in response to that kind of norm, its behavior is an act.
What are you currently working on?
As perhaps can be inferred from the above, I’m working on the issue of norm responsiveness. We frequently experience an agent as acting as she does because (the agent recognizes that) she should do so. The explanation for why my dog drops his chewy toy at my feet and nuzzles me is that (he recognizes that) this is the right thing for him to do in order to get me to play fetch with him. The parenthetical ‘recognition’ clause in this kind of explanation is used as a ‘belief’ marker to account for the evident fact that sometimes agents behave incorrectly to achieve their ends, even though what they do still is related to the rest of their activity in such a way as to suggest that what they do is still an act. After all, I don’t always play with Sammy when he prompts me to do so, although whether I do so or not he is still prompting me, rather than having an epileptic seizure, for example. One traditional way to understand this recognition clause is given clear expression in Kant: when an agent acts for a reason, or because they ought to do so, she acts in response to a representation or concept of a law. There are a number of reasons to think that this view is hopeless, the fact that ‘mindless coping behavior’ involves responsiveness to norms being just one of those reasons. But that leaves hanging the questions of what it is for an agent to respond to a norm and how one should understand the fact that an agent can respond incorrectly to a norm. Given my pragmatic approach to issues of intentionality and agency, these are fundamental questions. I’m currently writing a book on what it is for an agent to respond to a norm in its practical engagement with the world.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Okrent and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Ralon, L. (2014). “Interview with Mark Okrent,” Figure/Ground. May 5th.
< http://figureground.org/interview-with-mark-okrent/ >
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